As the opening of the Encore development at the northern end of downtown Tampa draws near, much attention is being paid to a once-neglected corner of the city. The controversy surrounding the skate bowl at Perry Harvey Park, and the very existence of that park, brings up questions about what stood on that ground before.
Much has been written about the heyday of the Central Avenue business district, the main business and recreation center for Tampa’s African-American community through the 1960s. The story of how Central Avenue came to be the center of black life in Tampa — and what came before it — has not received as much attention, but it is an interesting story, nonetheless.
The Central Avenue business district sat at the western edge of The Scrub, which was Tampa’s first African-American neighborhood. Tracing its lineage to just after the Civil War, The Scrub was settled by emancipated slaves and freemen from the area who, during Reconstruction, experienced a small but meaningful amount of freedom and economic success. With the end of Reconstruction in the early 1870s came an end to that success, while Tampa in general also continued a slow economic decline.
Prosperity came to Tampa in 1883 in the form of a steam engine; Henry Plant’s railroad, along with his steamship line, immediately transformed the city. Combined with the introduction of the cigar industry in 1885, Tampa enjoyed a population boom. Though consisting largely of Cubans in the beginning, that population growth crossed demographic lines and included Southern-born whites and blacks. Many African-Americans who moved to Tampa found homes in The Scrub, which was becoming less isolated as downtown began growing toward its western edge and the establishment of Ybor City just to the east.
Tampa at this time mostly was confined to what is now downtown south of the interstate. Most of the growth, particularly among white businesses, was centered along Franklin Street south of Twiggs Street. This left a void north of Twiggs that was filled, to some degree, by the few black-owned businesses and professional offices that existed. The 1886 Tampa city directory is one of the earliest sources that details most of the household and business addresses in the city. The majority of African-American listings, designated by the use of an asterisk, are for residences and do not include an occupation. Many of those residents do not have specific street addresses but are instead listed as living in The Scrub. None is listed as living or having a business on Central Avenue, which itself has a different name — Center Avenue. Given its relationship between old Tampa and new Ybor City, it is possible that Central (or Center) Avenue was named because it sat in the center of the rapidly growing city.
In 1893, city directory canvassers found 21 African-American businesses, with a small handful in The Scrub. Significantly, though, two businesses called Central Avenue home: a barbershop and a restaurant.
In 1899, the city directory shows 56 African-American businesses, with 19 on Central Avenue. In addition to the businesses that existed four years earlier, others opened up on the growing thoroughfare. They included a physician, an upholsterer, a jeweler and an undertaker.
The majority of black businesses, as in the past, were located in the northern edge of downtown Tampa. Polk Street held the most, but others could be found on Lafayette Street (today’s Kennedy Boulevard) and Franklin Street. Also by this time, Tampa’s black community was expanding past the limits of The Scrub, with African-American homes and businesses in Ybor City, West Tampa and the Town of Fort Brooke (on the site of the old military fort at the southeastern end of downtown).
Ten years into the 20th century, the business district around The Scrub continued to grow. The number of businesses on Central Avenue grew to 24 by 1910, out of 139 black-owned businesses listed in that year’s city directory. The streets near Central — Scott, Constant, Polk, Harrison and Pierce, in particular — also saw an increase in the number of African-American owned and operated businesses and trades. By 1910 there were two black attorneys in Tampa, including one with an office on Central, and nine physicians (two on Central). The Avenue also served as the address for Tampa’s first African-American newspaper — The Florida Reporter.
Looking back, Tampa’s main African-American business district could just as likely have grown up on the northern edge of downtown rather than to the east adjacent to The Scrub. This did not happen, though, mostly because of the expansion of white businesses and professional offices as well as the continued growth of Tampa Heights, which also was just north of downtown. Central Avenue soon attracted more businesses, and wood-frame homes were replaced by brick storefronts.
By 1915, Tampa was booming, and so was Central Avenue. Forty-eight businesses operated on Central between Cass and Scott streets, while homes continued north along Central to Henderson Avenue in Tampa Heights (not to be confused with Henderson Boulevard in South Tampa), which was the invisible line between white and black Tampa in that neighborhood. Saloon keepers, tailors, a cigar manufacturer, a confectioner, grocers and real estate agents could be found on Central, along with two movie theaters, a hotel, a notary public, a pharmacy and six restaurants. Central Avenue was coming into its own, and much of the growth came from business owners moving away from downtown Tampa to the African-American downtown along Central. That trend continued throughout the 1910s, and by the early 1920s, Central Avenue was the center of black life in Tampa.
Rodney Kite-Powell is the Saunders Foundation Curator of History at the Tampa Bay History Center. He welcomes your comments and questions and can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at (813) 228-0097.